Viral marketing: 6 steps to a viral message

Viral marketing: 6 steps to a viral message

Sissy Scheible
Sissy Scheible
published on June 7, 2023   

Viral Marketing - The most important points in brief:

  • Viral marketing aims to achieve as much reach as quickly as possible with an unusual campaign, through voluntary sharing via private accounts.

  • Viral marketing offers many advantages, but it can also go wrong.

  • There are six factors on which the success of your viral marketing depends.

  • Viral marketing is suitable for companies even if the campaigns do not go viral.

A little boy dressed up as Darth Vader tries to move things telekinetically and of course fails. His father comes home, parks his Volkswagen and goes into the house. The boy tries his power on the car and finally succeeds: the car’s lights come on. The boy is happy, because he can’t know that the father just pressed the car’s remote control.
This Volkswagen commercial is a prime example of successful viral marketing. Even today, more than 12 years after its release, the spot is still remembered by most people. Contrary to some other campaigns that have gone viral, most people can also still remember the product behind the commercial.

What is viral marketing?

“Viral marketing is a form of marketing that utilizes social networks and media to draw attention to a brand, product, or campaign with a usually unusual or intriguing message.”
This definition of viral marketing (Viralmarketing / Virusmarketing) on Wikipedia already captures the essence of the matter very well. It should be added that viral marketing aims to gain reach in the shortest possible time, through the voluntary dissemination of content by users. The advertising message is of secondary importance. It is much more about increased attention.

How does viral marketing work?

Although the principle of viral marketing is based on word-of-mouth marketing (buzz marketing), it differs from it in that viral marketing is always based on a trigger. Digital channels are very well suited for this trigger moment (seeding), especially social media platforms.
As the name suggests, the post should spread like a virus and “infect” the Internet community. People should get so excited about the content that they spread it on their own accord. To do this, the content is usually particularly emotional and entertaining.
Multipliers, such as influencers or bloggers, can help the message spread faster.

Advantages and disadvantages of viral marketing

The biggest advantage of viral marketing is, of course, that it is inexpensive. The platforms on which the content is distributed can be used free of charge and the distribution by the users is also usually free of charge. However, depending on the effort invested, increased costs may be incurred for the production of the campaign (for example, for videos, which go viral most often).
Other advantages of viral marketing are that the content does not fall victim to ad blockers and it is perceived more as a recommendation than advertising, since it is shared from private accounts. In addition, a high reach and fast distribution are optimally possible.
The most common disadvantage of viral marketing is that the virus is often not transmitted, so the campaign is unfortunately not successful. Also, the course of a viral campaign cannot be controlled. Once in the world, the message goes its own way. Later corrections to the content are hardly possible. There are high scattering losses and there can also be unwanted reactions, up to and including a shitstorm. It also often happens that a post, video or similar goes viral, but the brand behind it is not noticed. For example, do you remember that behind the Ice Bucket Challenge was a call to raise funds for ALS research? Or do you know what the cult game Moorhuhn has to do with the whisky brand Johnnie Walker?

The STEPPS principle: 6 steps to a viral message

There is no guarantee that your marketing campaign will go viral. Viral marketing has earned the title “the supreme discipline of marketing” for a reason. There are companies that succeed several times in going viral with their advertising messages, such as Edeka. Who doesn’t remember the “Supergeil” spots or the very touching Christmas spot #heimkommen?
Companies like Edeka thus seem to have found a way to increase the likelihood of their campaigns going viral. In his book Contagious, marketing expert Jonah Berger comes to a clear conclusion: Viral messages are no coincidence, but depend on six factors. He summarizes these factors in his STEPPS principle.

Social Currency

Social Currency is something you need to provide in your viral marketing. People share information that makes them look good. Things that do the opposite, they keep to themselves. So give your customers the opportunity to look good when they share your message. Practice empathy and always consider how it makes the person sharing your promotional message look to your circle of acquaintances. Can they stand out in a positive way by sharing your message?


Make sure that the customer is reminded of your advertising campaign again and again through so-called triggers in everyday life by connecting your product with everyday processes and experiences. A prime example of this is the advertising campaign for the “Knoppers” snack. With the slogan “Morgens, halb zehn in Deutschland” (“Morning, half past nine in Germany”), the campaign succeeded in linking a specific time of day with the product, at a time when many people feel hungry.


One thing is certain: people who act purely rationally do not exist. We are all driven by our emotions. Even sharing content on social media is often a purely impulsive act. Therefore, as a company, you need to understand exactly what emotions are triggered in your target audience by your content. Jonah Berger found in a study that pleasure, excitement, amazement and awe are the main emotions that inspire people to share content. Sadness or contentment are also strong emotions, but these do not inspire action. So be sure to trigger the right emotions with your content. Ask yourself: Does your message light a fire that moves people?


Although we are human and all feel like individuals, we often act like herd animals. We mimic what others do. For example, if a post has already been liked many times, it’s all the more likely that others will like it too, because there must be something special about it if so many people like it. For your viral marketing, this means: try to achieve the widest possible reach in all the media available to you. Make your content public. How? Consider if and how people can notice your offer in public. Stand out from the crowd with eye-catching product features and a smart campaign.

Practical Value

Whenever people talk about “added value” in content marketing, that’s probably what they mean: usefulness.
Content that users find useful is shared significantly more often than content that has no benefit. Content that helps solve a problem, implement something, do something better, or provides some other assistance is useful.
Due to the amount of advertising that Internet users are exposed to on a daily basis, they have become numb to messages that are simply trying to convince them of an offer. Instead, inform with your content to provide tangible value. For example, shampoo manufacturers could score points with posts about proper hair care or hairstyle tips. Do you sell pet supplies? Provide useful information about dog and cat breeds or proper pet care. Does your company manufacture pharmaceutical products? Provide valuable health tips. In general, think about what practical benefits you can share. What added value can your company provide?


You should already be aware of the importance of storytelling in marketing. Jonah Berger writes about this, “Build a Trojan horse.” What is meant by this is that brands / companies should create a story around their offerings instead of talking about it directly. People like to love and share good stories, rather than boring product descriptions. For your storytelling, this means you need to plan your story well, with a good introduction, middle and end. Be clear about what the core of the narrative should be and connect it with information about you and your offer. A good story with high reach will only help you if it is also associated with your company and your product.

The six STEPPS of Jonah Berger will improve your viral marketing

6 STEPPS by Jonah Berger

In addition to Jonah Berger’s STEPPS, there are of course other ways to optimize your viral marketing. Here you can find a more in-depth article on the topic.

Should your company use viral marketing?

Even if you implement Jonah Berger’s STEPPS perfectly, you still might not manage to go viral, because there’s always a bit of luck involved.
Is viral marketing worthwhile for your company at all? Yes, because it at least optimizes the reach and effectiveness of your marketing. The popularity and recognition value of your brand will definitely increase and your content will be liked and shared more often.
Generally speaking, if you want to go viral, you need perseverance and that certain something.